The Lord said a great many things that we forget in the midst of life’s daily pressures. He is also reported to have said a number of things that I cannot find in my Bible. At a press conference before he was led off to prison, Marion Barry, the disgraced mayor of Washington, D.C., told a gathered crowd that the Good Book says, “To thine own self be true.” It’s a sentiment which is likely to evoke head nodding among many Americans, but which was advised by a shallow character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, not almighty God.
At the top of any misattributed list of God’s counsel is the notion that “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s an Americanized sentiment, which appeals to the pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps attitude that helped establish this country as one of the most powerful and prosperous nations in the world. No siestas and six-week vacations for us. We are self-made people who get things done.
Our culture celebrates the true-to-himself man who speaks his mind and stands up to bullies. This was the standard to which I compared myself. And though I’ve come up short more times than I can count, I’ve tried to live the courageous, take-charge life. I’ve accepted all the work I can to provide for my family. I’ve worked to study the Bible longer, to pray with greater faithfulness, to speak boldly for my faith. I’ve walked and prayed on the sidewalks outside abortion clinics. I’ve called people out for their sins, and sometimes actually listened when they called me out for mine. Even when I fell short, I was confident that courage is, at its core, all about taking action. Now I’m not so sure.
I am prone to take action, in other words, not because I am a confident man of God, but because too often I have no confidence in God.
The problem with my action-hero notion of courage is that I’m most inclined to take matters into my own hands precisely in the places where I am least inclined to trust God. I try to become my own hero because, deep in my heart, I don’t believe that He will be there to save me. I work long hours, for fear that if I don’t take every opportunity to earn more money, my sons may not get the schooling they need. I let myself get obsessed over the character flaws of my children and correct them left and right, because in my heart, I believe their salvation is entirely up to me. When I hunger and thirst for God, I am inclined to read a theology book, because I conceptualize Him as an entity to be studied rather than a person with whom I can have relationship. A person who will tell me when to act and—perhaps a most un-American concept—when to be still and quiet.
It doesn’t immediately occur to me to associate waiting with courage, but then I remember how David had to remind himself that God would, as He always had before, come to his defense: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).
But if God is going to show up and take care of everything, where is David’s opportunity to be courageous? Wouldn’t it take more nerve to go out and face his enemies right away? I imagine David—no stranger to battle—faced the temptation to do just that. But he’d staked his life on following God, so he knew he couldn’t leave that path. He had to wait on the Lord, even if that meant watching his enemies draw closer.
I’ve never been encircled by hostile armies, but I have felt surrounded by enemies wishing me harm, be it gossip, or undercutting, or outright slander. I’m not good at waiting in the face of such attacks. I like to believe my impatience is a kind of virtue. Quite often what drives me, however, is not a courageous sense of God’s purpose in my life, but exactly the opposite—the fear that if I don’t solve this problem, He won’t either.
I am prone to take action, in other words, not because I am a confident man of God, but because too often I have no confidence in God. I’m worse than someone who thinks “God helps those who help themselves” is an actual Bible verse.
Part of my worry, of course, is not that God will abandon me, but that His purposes are different from my own. I think of the many martyrs who have gone meekly to slaughter. I think of Peter enjoining Christian women to win over their sinful husbands, not with sermons but with “chaste and respectful behavior,” and “a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:2-4). I think of Christ, on the eve of His crucifixion, telling His disciples not that the world will know them by the effectiveness of their sermons or the certainty of their dogma, but by their love for one another (John 13:35).
The more courageous—and obedient—action would be to wait, even when waiting doesn’t make any worldly sense.
It seems that quite often what God expects from us is not bold speech or decisive action, but the very opposite: waiting, quiet endurance, and a persevering love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Could it be that at least some of those times when I charge confidently ahead, the more courageous—and obedient—action would be to wait, even when waiting doesn’t make any worldly sense? That’s not what America is known for, is it? It’s certainly not what I am known for. Yet it’s what God often asks. He’s asked it over the centuries, and He’s asked it of far better people than me.
I’ve always thought forging one’s own path and speaking truth to power were the really courageous acts—and often they are. The Bible is filled with stories of faithful people taking action, despite their fears, because God commanded it. But waiting, and cultivating a love that “endures all things,” can demand just as much audacity as challenging the Pharaoh.
And this makes me realize that there are quietly courageous people all around me. Their “bearing all things” is to turn the other cheek to a wicked or hardhearted person every day, or to faithfully care for someone helpless and incapable of reciprocating, or to stay in a job, a marriage, or a community because they believe serving God’s purpose for their lives is more important than being self-made.
I’ve tried being self-made, and all I’ve made of myself is a mess. I’ve tried being brave by the world’s standards, and I’ve proven a coward. I need the Lord’s courage. A courage that relies on Him to guide me where He would have me go, to give me words to speak and silence when my words aren’t needed. A courage that loses this life in order that He would save it.